Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford
This blog series reviews major policy reforms and interventions to showcase real-life examples of the ‘five actions to accelerate progress in learning’ identified by Pritchett, Newman & Silberstein (2022). In this sixth and final blog in the series, I discuss how significant financial investments into the status quo under India’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan programme yielded minimal results, illustrating the importance of considering strategies such as the five actions to design meaningful interventions.
The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) programme was aimed at providing elementary education to all children across India. It was one of the largest programmes of its kind, with a high price tag (Colclough & De, 2010).
While financial outlays under SSA were significant, the programme failed to achieve its goals. SSA invested significant funds into the status quo, but the status quo was not the optimal solution: children were still not learning, administrative spending was highly inefficient, public schools continued to be abandoned in favour of private schools, and the absolute number of children enrolled in public schools fell.
The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) programme was launched in 2001 with the aim of providing elementary education to all children across India. SSA was one of the largest programmes of its kind, with access to significant funding: by 2006/7, around USD 7.8 billion had been invested into the programme (Colclough & De, 2010).
While the financial outlays under SSA were significant, the programme was not able to achieve its goals, and many children were still not learning in India. In other words, even with access to significant financial resources the programme was not able to achieve its results, showing that investing more money into the status quo doesn’t necessarily lead to changed outcomes.
India is a large middle-income country with a high prevalence of poverty and income inequality (Ward, 2011). High levels of poverty coupled with the size of the country mean that global problems are magnified in India.
In 1990, there were approximately 30 to 40 million children out of primary school in India—a third of the global total (Lockheed et al., 1990). Similar estimates show that India was home to a quarter of the 104 million out-of-school children globally by 2000 (UNESCO, 2002).
Further, in 1991, half of India’s population could not read; exactly a decade later, 4 out of 10 people still could not read (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2021). This illustrates a deep education crisis in the country and was the basis for a national education programme to provide elementary education to all children.
‘Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan,’ which means ‘the education for all movement,’ was a programme designed and managed by the Government of India with financial support from the World Bank, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID, which is now the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, FCDO), and the European Commission (Ward, 2011). The goal of SSA was ‘to ensure that by 2010 all children in India aged between 6 and 14 years [would be] receiving eight years of elementary education of acceptable quality, regardless of sex, caste, creed, family income or location’ (Ward, 2011, p. 544). While the initial target was set for 2010, the programme was extended and is still operational today.
Given that India is a federal country and basic education falls within each state’s jurisdiction, the SSA programme was designed in a flexible manner to facilitate implementation in different states with very different circumstances. There was thus a series of interventions designed under the programme which promoted access to quality elementary education to all children, and states were able to choose which interventions to implement. These interventions were as follows (Ward, 2011):
The interventions above can be grouped into two themes: (i) ensuring access to primary schools complete with appropriate facilities and teaching and learning materials and (ii) providing capacity building and technical assistance to teachers and schools.
To promote equity, the states and districts that were furthest behind were given higher emphasis under SSA, resulting in the four states furthest behind receiving almost 70 percent of the programme’s funding (Ward, 2011).
The status of India’s education system after the implementation of the SSA programme was mixed:
Enrolment trends in India after the SSA programme are unexpected. The number of out-of-school children in India was initially 26 million in 2000, prior to the start of the programme. By 2009, it was reduced to 7.5 million (Ward, 2011). By 2013, there were primary schools in over 90 percent of India’s habitations, and over 96 percent of 6- to 14-year-old children were enrolled in schools (Banerji, 2014).
A closer look, however, reveals a surprising picture: while enrolment increased overall, absolute enrolment decreased in government schools (where the SSA programme was being implemented). Data from India’s District Information System for Education (DISE) shows that absolute enrolment in government schools fell by over 6.7 million children from 2005 to 2014, while enrolment in private schools increased by over 35.5 million children (World Bank, 2016). Other estimates suggest that from 2010/11 to 2015/16, enrolment in government schools declined by 13.12 million children, despite the number of government schools increasing by 12,297 and overall enrolment (public and private) increasing (Kingdon, 2017).
There have been no conclusive evaluations of whether the increase in demand for education overall was spurred by the SSA programme or whether these figures of private vs. public switchovers were the result of pre-existing trends in the education system that the SSA programme did little to counter. What is clear, though, is that the SSA programme was not successful in increasing the demand for public education in any significant manner.
Although enrolment trends remain varied, trends in learning are clearer: learning levels have not improved much.
Based on the Annual Status of Education Reports (ASER), more than half of the children in Grade 5 could not read a Grade-2 level text in 2009 (Banerji, 2014). This trend continues into 2013, when the proportion of children in Grade 5 who could not read a Grade-2 level text was still around half (47 percent).
Learning levels in arithmetic were not much different, with only slightly over a half of children in Grade 5 being able to conduct a two-digit subtraction problem with borrowing in 2013 (Banerji, 2014). This shows that learning levels were not only low across India, but that learning trajectories were stagnant or even declining.
Educating a student was twice as costly in government schools compared to private schools in the typical Indian state in 2011/12 (Pritchett & Aiyar, 2015). In particular, it cost INR 7,906 (roughly USD 100) more to educate a child in a public school compared to in a private school. At an aggregate level, the Indian government spent an additional INR 500 billion (roughly USD 6.66 billion) to educate children in public schools as compared to what it would have cost to educate these children in private schools.
To make matters worse, these figures do not account for differences in the quality of education between public and private schools in India. In order to reach the same level of learning provided in private schools, the Indian government would have had to spend an additional INR 2.32 trillion (roughly USD 28.3 billion today) over what private schools spend (Pritchett & Aiyar, 2015).
These indicate that in addition to public schools producing lower learning outcomes for students, public schools are also significantly costlier and perhaps more inefficient than their private school counterparts. One reason for this could be a result of lower numbers of children enrolled in public schools, thus higher per-student costs. Another element feeding into higher costs in public schools could be teacher salaries, whereby substantially lower salaries are paid to teachers in low-cost private schools (but this leads to ethical concerns about teacher remuneration, which is a larger discussion).
The SSA programme invested significant sums of money into scaling up primary education across India. The premise behind the programme was that access to schools and levels of learning were low because of inadequate infrastructure or inputs, and that investing in ‘thin’ inputs would get more children into schools and more children learning.
This assumption seems to be faulty. While money was invested into the status quo (which in this case meant improving inputs), the status quo was not the optimal solution: absolute enrolment in government schools fell, with parents continuing to opt for private schools; learning levels remained low and learning trajectories were stagnant or declining; and public education spending was highly inefficient.
Outcomes associated with the SSA programme show that investing more money into the status quo is not always the solution. This case yields the following policy implications:
Banerji, R. 2014. Improving children’s learning: Challenges and priorities for the new government. Ideas for India: Notes from the Field.
Colclough, C. & De, A. 2010. The Impact of Aid on Education Policy in India. Research Consortium on Educational Outcomes & Poverty (RECOUP) Working Paper No. 27.
Kingdon, G.G. 2017. The Private Schooling Phenomenon in India: A Review. IZA Discussion Paper No. 10612.
Lockheed, M., A. Verspoor, & Associates. 1990. Improving primary education in developing countries: A review of policy options. Oxford: Oxford University Press for the World Bank.
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